We all know that COVID-19 has affected everyone’s lives differently—some for the better, some for the worse—but this effect is a common thread throughout the whole of human species. There are lots of threads that connect us together, but this one has slapped us in the face and forced us to see it. My heart sinks as I write this and I think about how easy it is to compare our struggles against our neighbors, but does this prove to be productive?

Since COVID, our opportunities to engage in social interaction have decreased exponentially depending on our locality, immune systems, social position, moral character, our social and economic backgrounds, and much more—yet another thread that connects us all. It’s important for our well-being to acknowledge the loss of these positive effects derived social interaction and human touch because they inherently induce a reduction in stress levels and ostracism, promote our health, evoke a wide range of emotional messages, such as pleasure and generosity, as well as, play a central role in our production of oxytocin and in the activation of our μμ-opioid receptor (MOR) system. Essentially, we are at a loss since the beginning of COVID and this article will address each of the benefits we might be missing out on and how we can replace social interaction with self-soothing behaviors to induce the release of oxytocin and opioids through non-noxious (non-harmful) sensory stimulation.

“Social relationships—both quantity and quality—affect our mental health, health behavior, physical health, and mortality risk. Studies have shown that social relationships have short- and long-term effects on health, for better and for worse, and that these effects emerge in childhood and cascade throughout life to foster cumulative advantage or disadvantage in health (Umberson & Montez, 2010).” According to this article, key research describes some of the major findings in the study of social relationship and health, and how that knowledge might be translated into policy that promotes population health such as: “(1) social relationships have significant effects on health; (2) social relationships affect health through behavioral, psychosocial, and physiological pathways; (3) relationships have costs and benefits for health; (4) relationships shape health outcomes throughout the life course and have a cumulative impact on health over time; and (5) the costs and benefits of social relationships are not distributed equally in the population (Umberson & Montez, 2010).”

I also found their definitions of “Social Relationships” to be quite enlightening:

“Social scientists have studied several distinct features of social connection offered by relationships (Smith and Christakis 2008). Social isolation refers to the relative absence of social relationships. Social integration refers to overall level of involvement with informal social relationships, such as having a spouse, and with formal social relationships, such as those with religious institutions and volunteer organizations. Quality of relationships includes positive aspects of relationships, such as emotional support provided by significant others, and strained aspects of relationships, such as conflict and stress. Social networks refer to the web of social relationships surrounding an individual, in particular, structural features, such as the type and strength of each social relationship. Each of these aspects of social relationships affects health.”

Please read this article for a more in-depth look at the effects social interaction—and abundance of or lack of—has on our biological, physiological, behavioral, and psychosocial health, as well as public policies for enhancing population health and well-being: Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy.

 

The activation of μμ-opioid receptor (MOR) system is well known to promote motivation for and enjoyment of appetitive reward and provides relief of day-to-day negative affects we might be experiencing, such as physical pain; In addition, opioids are known to have an inhibitory effect on our Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis responses to environmental stress (Ellingsen, 2016). We can all safely assume that this can be a key proponent to having a successful day, week, month, or year. So, what does social interaction have to do with the MOR system? Studies show that social touch influences the opioidergic activation in humans to support our long-term relationships. Social touch triggers pleasurable sensations and increases MOR availability in our brains, quite possibly providing a neurochemical mechanism that reinforces our social bonds between humans (Nummenmaa, 2016). When we starve ourselves of these experiences, we trigger stress, depression and anxiety that eventually cascades into a variety of negative physiological effects like increased heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and muscle tension, in addition to suppressing the digestive and immune systems—increasing the risk of COVID infection (Williams, 2020).

 

On the same note, oxytocin, dubbed the love hormone, rises when we make physical contact with another human and plays an important role in adult human bonding. Furthermore, oxytocin is important for social memory, attachment, and the building of trust between humans. In reference to this NCBI article: “Oxytocin is released in response to activation of sensory nerves during labor, breastfeeding and sexual activity. In addition, oxytocin is released in response to low intensity stimulation of the skin, e.g., in response to touch, stroking, warm temperature, etc.” The release of oxytocin into the brain because of these types of interactive behaviors, contributes to everyday wellbeing and the ability to handle stress. In other words, in order to counteract the effects of stress and anxiety provoked by social isolation, social bonds must be formed (Lee, Macbeth, Pagani, & Young, 2009). But how do we do this amongst the COVID-era?

Well, it can be as easy as stroking a dog, receiving massage, cuddles, eye contact, treating yourself to a favorite meal, experiencing warmth, listening to music, or incorporating yoga or other relaxation techniques as well as exercise. Foods, such as avocados, watermelon, spinach, green tea, coffee and almonds, all help in the production of oxytocin; in addition, certain supplements, such as vitamin c, magnesium, lactobacillus reuteri (probiotic), and herbs like sage, anise seed, and fenugreek, have all been shown to increase levels of oxytocin, resulting in lasting effects of wellbeing and overall health.

 

I hope that this article provides some insight for you in the importance of our social interactions and touch, the science and effects of neurochemicals produced by them, and finally, providing a variety of ways to self soothe amidst the COVID era.

 

 

Resources

 

Ellingsen, D.-M., Leknes, S., Løseth, G., Wessberg, J., & Olausson, H. (2016, January 6). The Neurobiology Shaping Affective Touch: Expectation, Motivation, and Meaning in the Multisensory Context. Frontiers in psychology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4701942/.

Ellingsen, D.-M., Leknes, S., Løseth, G., Wessberg, J., & Olausson, H. (2016, January 6). The Neurobiology Shaping Affective Touch: Expectation, Motivation, and Meaning in the Multisensory Context. Frontiers in psychology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4701942/.

Lee, H.-J., Macbeth, A. H., Pagani, J. H., & Young, W. S. (2009, June). Oxytocin: the great facilitator of life. Progress in neurobiology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2689929/.

Nummenmaa L;Tuominen L;Dunbar R;Hirvonen J;Manninen S;Arponen E;Machin A;Hari R;Jääskeläinen IP;Sams M; (2016, September). Social touch modulates endogenous μ-opioid system activity in humans. NeuroImage. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27238727/.

Sagar, R., Chawla, N., & Sen, M. S. (2020, December). Preserving the “human touch” in times of COVID-19. Asian journal of psychiatry. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7305761/.

Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2010). Social relationships and health: a flashpoint for health policy. Journal of health and social behavior. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3150158/.

Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Handlin, L., & Petersson, M. (2015, January 12). Self-soothing behaviors with particular reference to oxytocin release induced by non-noxious sensory stimulation. Frontiers in psychology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4290532/.

Williams, R. (2020, August 6). COVID-19 and the Loss of Personal Touch. Medium. https://raybwilliams.medium.com/covid-19-and-the-loss-of-personal-touch-23879ee2f380.